Coffeenomics

Hipster CoffeeThe ideal conditions for writing a blog post – especially an inaugural one such as this – are generally those of tranquillity. Free of pressure either to deliver to a deadline or distractions from pesky friends and family, the blogger can tackle the issues of the day unworried and unhindered.

Oh, and caffeine helps. Hence the congregation of creative types (and their Mac Books) in seemingly every coffee shop in the Western world. The symbiotic relationship between blogger and barista is one of the most visible examples of our hyper-connected, information (or cat picture) sharing civilisation. This ubiquitous sign of modernity exists thanks to a unique bargain: In exchange for shelter from the elements and free Wi-Fi, your correspondent and his brethren are entering into an unspoken understanding that they will pay for the establishment’s particular selection of warm brown liquids at regular intervals during their stay. Everyone’s a winner.

Beneath the surface, this cosy arrangement is showing signs of stress. As the custom has graduated from its indie coffee house roots to the mainstream – and as mobile computers have become ever more portable – a new breed has emerged to exploit this caffeinated social contract: the one-cup-every-five-hours Wi-Fi Hog. This virulent menace has spread to cover almost the entirety of the Starbuksified world, and it threatens to topple the entire blogoffee ecosystem.

The motivations of the Hog are very simple. Convenient Wi-Fi and warm seating areas in the centres of major cities are obviously not cheap, and such amenities are out of the reach of all but a few laptop-jockeys. But coffee shops are not providing them as acts of charity to nomadic students. Sure, there’s a chance one of them might drag themselves away from YouTube for long enough to write a blockbuster that turns your café into a mecca for star struck (and price insensitive) fans but the odds aren’t quite good enough to warrant such a generous subsidy.

In fact, the generous subsidy is being paid by actual coffee drinkers who are understandably miffed at being unable to find a table at which to drink their artificially overpriced stimulants. Miffed enough that the self-same indie coffee shops, that first introduced free Wi-Fi back in the days before my granny had an iPad, are now disabling their internet connections and power outlets in an attempt to boot out the loiterers. Others have resorted to 38th-parallel style lines of demarcation to save some space for the Great Unconnected. Even giants like Peet’s and Panera are imposing restrictions in an attempt to tempt back customers who go to coffee shops to actually buy coffee.

The barista fights backEvidently the cost of providing the service has jumped, as patrons’ plethora of mobile capable devices jam lower capacity systems. Some, undoubtedly, see the services as an opportunity to complement stingy mobile data limits. However, the true costs inflicted by the Hogs are disguised by the cross-subsidy provided by coffee drinkers. At the dawn of the free Wi-Fi era, keeping customers for longer ensured a steady stream of orders. The rise of the Hog has made it more profitable to increase turnover. Perhaps if this intellectual adventure had started a few years later, it would not have begun with a cappuccino.

Garland

October 2013

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